Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and some 32 other ministers were sworn into office on May 17, forming the largest Israeli government in history.
And the reason: the coronavirus.
After three inconclusive elections, the global pandemic convinced the two leaders of the need to put their differences aside and come together in an awkward rotation government for the good of the country. This was deemed an “emergency government.”
The coronavirus is the raison d’etre of this government. With the exception of being able to move on extending Israeli sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria, dealing with the coronavirus was supposed to be the only thing this government would focus on for months.
The idea – a good one – was for the government to provide the country something it desperately needed in dealing with the pandemic: clear leadership.
And leadership means making difficult – and often unpopular – decisions. The beauty of a broad government is that even unpopular decisions will not threaten its collapse.
Unfortunately, a month later, the emergency government has not delivered that clear leadership. Rather than the government leading, it is increasingly being led by the public – and the public is obviously eager and desirous of going back as quickly as possible to life as it was before COVID-19 appeared.
But this is simply not possible, and the country’s leadership needs to make that clear – as unpopular as that may be.
On May 6, as the number of new corona cases began to fall, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that it was time to begin easing up on the lockdown that took a huge economic and emotional toll on the country.
Speaking at a press conference, he announced that people could once again walk beyond 100 meters from their homes, that grandparents could meet their grandchildren, and that people could gather in groups of up to 20 outdoors.
And then, in a staggered fashion, more and more establishments began to open: schools, gyms, markets, malls and synagogues. Life began to return to a degree of normalcy, as normal as it could be while wearing masks, social distancing, and not shaking hands.
But as the doors opened wider, more people – predictably – fell ill, and there was talk of a “second wave.” Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch admitted in an Army Radio interview Sunday that the country opened up too swiftly.
It did. Why? Because people demanded it, and the leadership bent to their will. Parents, understandably, wanted their kids back in school; store owners, understandably, wanted their businesses back open; employees, understandably, wanted to go back to work.
But the role of leadership is to take a wider view, and balance all the competing interests. In charting the country’s exit strategy at that May 6 press conference, Netanyahu wisely said the return to normal would be gradual, and that there would be trip-wires that – if triggered – would slow everything down.
One trip-wire would be if more than 100 people became infected each day. Another would be if the infection rate doubled every 10 days. And the last would be if number of coronavirus patients in serious condition reached 250.
Both the first and second red lines have been passed in recent days, but they did not trigger an emergency brake. They did prompt a reassessment, but after each reassessment, the government’s decision was to continue opening everything up, even at a swifter pace.
There is now, however, a dissonance between recent headlines, and the easing of restrictions. The headlines on Sunday were particularly gloomy, highlighting a study drawn up inside Military Intelligence warning that Israel could face a situation where by July it will have hundreds more dead and a daily infection rate of 1000. Yet on Monday the trains are set to begin running again.
In light of the worsening situation, Netanyahu is convening the coronavirus cabinet on Monday. It is essential that a certain clarity of policy emerges from that meeting. How is it that the trip-wires have been triggered, but the country is still opening up? What is the strategy?
But it is also much too easy to throw the worsening situation at the doorstep of the government and say it has failed, and that the current spike is due solely to its missteps.
According to a study put out last week by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Israel scored “very good” marks in a comparative study of how 21 OECD countries are dealing with the pandemic. Only three of the countries studied – New Zealand, Austria and Germany – ranked better than Israel. That was true according to data available until June 9. Since then, however, the daily infections in Israel soared from 173 to 307 on Friday.
The public also bears responsibility for this dramatic uptick.
Cooped inside their homes for over a month, there was an understandable desire to return to normalcy. Stores, restaurants and the beaches opened up, and people started to go out. That was the good news. The bad news is that many did so without masks and no longer abiding by social distancing. Weariness set in.
Until a workable vaccine is developed, humanity – including our slice of it – will be living alongside COVID-19. The government needs to balance all the various interests at play – health interests against economic ones – and develop a coherent policy that is articulated to the public, and adhered to.
If, for instance, the government says that if there are 100 new cases a day it will be necessary to stop easing restrictions, then stick by it – even if it is unpopular. And this government, because it is wide, should be able to withstand the backlash.
And the government also needs to enforce the rules.
Wearing masks for hours on end is uncomfortable, yet it saves lives. The police do not let drivers going 140 km per hour in a 90 kph zone keep on driving, just because it is uncomfortable for them to drive slowly. Rather, they will be stopped and ticketed because they are endangering others.
The same needs to be done to those in closed spaces who either are not wearing masks, or who wear them on their chins. Those mask-less people in stores, buses, banks, clinics and post offices are endangering others, and as such should be fined.Nobody anywhere in the world knows exactly how to deal with the situation we are all facing. The unknowns are tremendous; the science is imperfect. But common sense dictates three things: the government needs to lead based on the best information it has, life-saving regulations need to be enforced, and the public needs to listen.